Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries.
Yusef Komunyakaa's exquisite poetry is the sound of him ticking. The best analysis to date of what makes him tick is Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. This book affords us an expansive and absorbing view of the curiosity, sensibilities, intellect, creative processes, and commitment that have produced an abundance of technical excellence. One can easily be inspired to seek once again his verse, particularly Dien Cai Dau, Magic City, and Neon Vernacular.
Blue Notes is organized into four sections: "Essays," "Poems," "Interviews," and "Explorations." Preceding these sections is a brief editor's introduction by Radiciani Clytus that is meant to be orienting, and is, but it is also somewhat irritating. Clytus posits that the bulk of what Komunyakaa writes "reflects his inextricable link to a sentiment seldom acknowledged in African American poetics--the idea that a 'black' experience should not particularize the presentation of art." The first problem with the argument is that it misrepresents the debate about the poetics mentioned. Far from being an issue rarely discussed, the debate about universality has been a major point of contention among African American writers for more than seventy-five years, from young Countee Cullen's 1924 pronouncement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that he was going to be a poet and not a Negro poet, to Langston Hughes's oft-cited 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," to the disagreement in the mid-1960s between Melv in B. Tolson and Robert Hayden, through the Black Arts Movement, and up to postmodernist discourses. The second problem is that Komunyakaa himself indicates, properly so, that much of what he produces is necessarily shaped by Black experiences. In the essay "Poetry and Inquiry," he asserts that "there is automatically a psychological overlay for my poetry, as well as for who I am, when talking about blackness." Although he claims not to focus consciously on Blackness in his work, he does concede that "I've always accepted who I am and have hoped to let that direct my poetic vision." It does not appear that Komunyakaa has so much transcended Cullen's conundrum, as Clytus puts the matter, as it does that he has not been much concerned with it.
In the twelve short essays that comprise the opening section, Komunyakaa articulates his rootedness in the Blues, which he labels "existential, black, and basic." This is the section's pervasive and fascinating theme. He also addresses the powerful influence that jazz is for him as he develops the imagistic narratives or collage effects that are hallmarks of his work. Several essays focus on artists who have inspired him, like Thelonius Monk, Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and Robert Hayden. His detailed, insightful read of Hayden's "(American Journal)" is a highlight as he speaks of Hayden's "indecorous eloquence" and musings as both American and outsider. Readers would profit enormously if a similar degree of critical attention were given to the work of Hughes. Komunyakaa understandably criticizes a 1927 New York Times review that deemed Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew "uneven and flawed." He argues the possibility that "the flaws become the gems that truly communicate." But we are never told what the flaws are considered to be or why he even agrees (or really does not?) that certain of Hughes's verbal constructions are defective.
More precision necessarily marks the next section, in which Komunyakaa presents five of his own poems and explains their genesis and development. This is a tricky assignment, because one may prefer the explications or think them more important. This may be true with respect to "Nude Study," a piece inspired by a John Singer Sargent painting, and "Jeanne Duval's Confession," a poem about Baudelaire's muse. The combination that works best is "Facing It" and the accompanying remarks about this meditation on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Additional creative writings are the "explorations" in the last section of the book. These include commendable Blues lyrics like "New Blues" and "Shot Down." "Buddy's Monologue," a selection about New Orleans cornet player Charles Buddy Bolden, is interesting and vibrant, but it is also overdrawn in ways his poetry never is.
The crucial section of the book is the series of seven interviews, which cover a ten-year span from 1990 to 2000. Through this medium, readers gain a fairly full sense of Komunyakaa's life, artistic influences, composing processes, teaching practices, and critical perspectives. Vitally important is his relationship to Southern folk culture, especially that of his childhood Bogalusa, Louisiana. His stint in Vietnam and his residencies in Colorado, Indiana, Japan, and Australia have also provided ample material for his poetry. His grasp of various literatures and their traditions is encyclopedic. Above all, these interviews portray the artist as an intellect who relentlessly pushes himself and his students to feel more deeply and explore craft more rigorously.
Although tremendously valuable, the interviews as a whole could hardly avoid being highly repetitive. The freshest, most dynamic exchange in the given context is between Komunyakaa and Tom Johnson as they discuss Knight. Contrasting Knight's poetry to the poets normally associated with the Black Arts Movement, Komunyakaa states a couple of times that Knight's work is more grounded. However, he doesn't specify the poets to whom he is referring or detail what such "grounding" implies. Nonetheless, he adds that Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry basically lost its grounding when she embraced the Black Arts Movement. He suggests that Brooks in her search for community was "reaching out to those individuals who would have denied her existence unless she co-opted herself." Beyond the fact that describing Brooks in terms of co-opting is quite unflattering, the statement is curious since folks were already celebrating Brooks by inviting her to participate in Black Arts gatherings before her so-called conversion. Grounding app ears to mean individuality and the absence of overt and intentional political expression. Of course, just as is the case with ethnicity and universal poetry, individuality and ideology are not contradictory elements, though they can be presented as such if one insists. While Komunyakaa and Johnson take swipes, some justifiable, at the Black Arts Movement, they realize that to advocate a complete separation of art and politics is untenable. Thus the following exchange:
Your poetry is fiercely individual and introspective, but, at the same time, you can speak extremely eloquently about being a black male in America.
One has to, as an artist, attempt to do that, you know. Attempt to look at things many different ways. Poetry is really distilled empathy, and in order to empathize one has to have the capacity to place him- or herself in different situations at different times.
Then, in a way, the empathy takes care of the responsibility.
Such resolution is certainly Komunyakaa's right, and it is a perspective that has allowed him to produce acclaimed poems. But, naturally, there is much more that could be discussed concerning the social responsibility of artists.
In summary, Blue Notes is an engrossing tour of Yusef Komunyakaa's mind relative to prosody. It contributes significantly to explanations about why he occupies the deservedly exalted perch he does in American letters. He will continue in a lofty position based on his past and future poetry and its reception. One hopes that he continues to comment on cultural politics, particularly the African American variety, though in a more elaborate and scholarly way. Perhaps he will expound at greater length on the relationships among art, artists, and politics. In a thoroughgoing discussion, his would be an essential voice to hear.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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